The Parameters of Privilege

Sometime a quote, story or metaphor is so impactful that you not only remember the core idea, but its specific details are retained in memory over the years. I have a lot of baggage like that, and one quote that has held its place for me comes from a book entitled “Paris to the Moon”, by Adam Gopnik. In that book he discusses the difference between a person’s native language (and culture) vs. some alternate one that has been acquired in adulthood. He writes: “We breathe in our first language, and swim in our second.”[1]

Anyone who has tried to learn a language other than the one you grew up with[2]can, I think, readily relate to this metaphor. And it is much more widely applicable than merely recognizing the difficulties in becoming bilingual. It also applies if we try to think outside “the box” – of most anything not acculturated to by osmosis, growing up. The world view we grew up “breathing” seems natural and universal. Trying to view life from a different perspective is, at a minimum, artificial, and demands work. It’s metaphorically like swimming.

Which brings me to the multifaceted and typically under-recognized subject of – privilege.

It can be a bit startling, at first, to list the various parameters in our life situations to which privilege can apply. There are so many. Here is my (likely not exhaustive) list, with some added clarifications:

1. Race (obviously a major problem in U.S. history)

2. Gender (women have been discriminated against throughout history)

3. Sexuality – straight is privileged, LGBTQ is discriminated against

4. A person’s intrinsic intelligence

5. Educational opportunities available

6. Physical appearance (i.e. pretty, handsome, ugly, disfigured – and appearance degrades as we age)

7. Health (which also degrades with age)

8. Body normal functionality (missing limbs, blind, deaf, etc.; or proclivity to health problems, such as Diabetes, Sickle Cell Anemia, Hemophilia)

9. Country of origin (because of varying access to opportunity and good government)

10. Language (e.g. English is privileged over, say, Balinese)

11. Familial wealth and status

12. Family stability and values (e.g. a two-parent home, ethics instilled by parents and extended family)

13. Family religion (consider how Jews have been persecuted throughout history)

Certainly some of these parameters are more impactful than others and the advantages conveyed can vary in different times and locations. But it is instructive to, first, look at a list such as this and checkbox, in your own mind, the ones in which you have privilege vs. those you don’t. Next, consider to what extent your personal collection of privilege parameters is what you “breathe”, i.e. feels normal and universal to you. Then finally, try to understand the perspective of less-privileged people who may have to navigate your world – especially if it is part of a dominant culture – and are therefore forced to “swim” daily.

Over the course of my adulthood I’ve recognized (certainly too slowly, but now for many years) that I am personally incredibly privileged. While my health has had some ups and downs, my family was middle class (not wealthy), I’m not movie-star handsome, etc. – there are no serious negatives I can point to on the entire list. Privilege, privilege, privilege – across the board. And this is NOT what most people on the planet experience! But because it is what I “breathe”, unless I deliberately step outside and beyond this comfortable bubble, I will never appreciate its abnormality. More importantly, I quite likely would think that everyone ought to be effortlessly navigating the world like I have been allowed to do.

Not too long ago The Guardianpublished an article entitled: “This is what it feels like to be black in white spaces”. It is highly informative. Most especially to those who can check off the great majority of parameters from my list. But such privilege is not the dominant norm, inequality is. And a person’s life experience, and how they are forced to function in the world, is deeply impacted by this. The lead sentence in the article states:

“Black people experience discrimination every day – it’s knowledge inaccessible to white people and, when confronted with it, most are incredulous.”

Yet, while race is, arguably, the most visible and egregious differentiator in the U.S. (and to varying degrees elsewhere), the broader issue is universal – as is the general cluelessness of the privileged. And the problem exists with every item on the above list, not just race[3]. But if you don’t experience something as a problem then, well, does it really exist?[4]Obviously yes, but if we live in a “gated” world-view, then we may well be blinded to the broader harm, and consequently immobilized in our willingness to be part of the solutions.

For Christians, one of the core values (and, I would argue, major attractions) of our religion is its commitment to human equality. And every parameter on the list (some would disagree on #3) is a consequence of circumstances. None of us get to choose our birth context. I certainly can make good or bad use of those circumstances (e.g. the parable of the talents) but what was handed to me, unmerited at birth, is dramatically different from someone who is, for example, a destitute homosexual female in rural Bangladesh. How many privilege parameters would such a person be able to check?

We read in the Bible (NIV):

· “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile” – Rom. 3:22

· “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Gal. 3:28

· “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” – Gal. 5:6

· “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” – Col. 3:11

Yet it is no secret that, within the Christian community – and Adventism is no exception – these ideals have failed often. Likely more often than not. Why? Could there be a greater core value in Christianity than equality, as exemplified by the above texts? I don’t think so. The common answer as to why such ideals often fail in practice, when considered most generally and abstractly, is that we are sinners and we struggle to leave that selfish, competitive mindset and rise to the ideals that Jesus has exemplified. But, at a more focused and pragmatic level, part of the failure is exacerbated by the extent we personally have some privilege parameter(s) that another person within our scope of influence (our “neighbor”) – does not. Such less-privileged ones “breathe” a world different from ours, and must “swim” when ours is culturally normative. It is important, even necessary, that we privileged ones – even if it is only one of the more marginal parameters – actually try to see the “swimmers” around us. For only by first seeing can we truly face the decision to activate those higher principles of Christianity that we all (theoretically) align with – and work to reshape our world toward equality.

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at:

Image Credit: Rich Hannon / Spectrum Magazine

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I had just arrived at Loma Linda Dental School. I was assigned to supervise a lab course for first year students. I was given a sheet of photos of each class member. however the labeling was such That it was difficult to decide if the name was above or below the photo. A large muscular black student cane to my desk. I greeted him with the name above the picture. he laughed and called a slightly build white student to come to my desk. he then said. dr. Zwemer can’t tell us apart…I became good friends with both after a good laugh. While a student at Old EMC I was hoeing corn with a black student who became Dr. Ford and for a season was on the Board of Education of the State of California. As we hoed down the row we vowed that we were hoeing corn to get the hell out of farming. Thanks to a number of excellent teachers we made it.


Thank you Rich for a truly substantive essay on privilege. One of the risks of privilege is to see the swimmers (the others) through condescending eyes. How often have we heard or thought, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I’? I’ve late in life become attracted to the converse, ‘There by the grace of God I am.’ It does not dispel the wider effects of privilege, but it surely brings context to my personal engagement with those through which I experience life. As you note, such a way of seeing is an act of the will until it can become fully intuited.

The Christian concept of salvation by God’s grace alone, that is salvation utterly independent of any action on our part but rather salvation as God’s outright gift, helps numb one’s sense of relative privilege within the world around us and especially within the body of Christ. Perhaps by sensing Christian salvation as a common privilege already gifted, we will come to sense ourselves as all swimming in the common realm of God’s grace. And in this intuited realm we will truly be loving one another and fulfilling Jesus’ vision for us as John (13) recorded for us. And, of course, such a vision remains cloudy for the reasons you detail in your list.


Rich Hannon,

Your provocative list of rankings / privileges / hierarchies was consciousness raising.and also troubling.

Even though my family was dirt poor (my father was a bricklayer) we could afford a servant who functioned as a gardener, cleaner, errand runner.

This was because we were white South Africans in the era of Apartheid and black servants were ultra cheap labor.

Even among the black Africans there was a hierarchy.
Our servant, Duncan, worked for us for many decades.
He was from Nyasaland, now Malawi, and his East African country had so few employment opportunities he travelled thousands of miles south to enter South Africa (.probably illegally ) to seek the greater employment opportunities there (even though, in retrospect, he was paid a pittance).

More recently, his adult grandchild, living in Malawi, contacted me because he had a third grade education, was unemployed and his country had minimal /.marginal opportunities.
A cycle of poverty and dependence.

The struggles of those born in shanty towns / slums / ghettos / barrios , are heartbreaking. Half the worlld’s population lives without a flush toilet !

The deaths of young black men at the hands of white police in this country,
recall the police state I grew up in.where racial profiling was pernicious and prevalent.

My medical,school in Johannesburg, was progressive in that it had a racially mixed student body. The 2000 bed black hospital in Soweto, where I interned, had a racially mixed staff. There were three interns in my unit ——-I the only white—my black collègue, with the same medical degree received one third my salary. My Asian collègue received two thirds—for the identical work.

Gender discrimination is rampant in Adventism, where many congregations have zero female elders, and most .church boards are often predominantly or exclusively male. Not to mention the pathetic profiling of our female pastors.

The religion most gender discriminatory is Islam.
The plight of the truly second class Islamic women is truly deplorable,

I live on the edge of a 30,000 student public university campus, overwhelmingly white, but with a few international Islamic students.

I watch with amazement, in the summer heat, as the Islamic girls are swathed in layers of suffocating black garments while their boyfriends sport tank tops, shorts and sandals !
The recent suicide of a nine year old boy, who told his classmates he was gay (they told him to kill himself ) emphasizes for all of us the hateful, heinous, homophobia rampant here. LBGT kida are emotionally disadvantaged and often live in danger from bullying and parental disapproval.

Those LGBT offspring born into fundamentalist Christian anti-gay families have eight times the suicide rate of the general population… it is preferable for a gay child to have atheist parents, than Adventist ones, if those Atheist parents are accepting and supportive.of his sexual orientation.

Pogroms and persecution against Jews forced many to flee pre Nazi Europe, and enter one of the few countries willing to accept them.

South Africa welcomed Jews in the 1930s and 1930s, not because it was pro Semitic, but it was wanting to increase the proportion of white citizens versus black. This was a bonanza for Jews who flocked there, many arriving penniless. However their children, all became doctors, dentists lawyers and professional people. My Johannesburg medical,School class was sixty per cent Jewish, as were many of my professors.

Jewish and Asian families emphasize education. How come the youth orchestra in my town (Portland ) is fifty per cent Asian when there is only a six percent Asian demographic in the city ??

This demonstrstes that adverse birth circumstances and other deleterious factors can be overcome by diligent parenting.

Adventism over many generations, has exhibited upward social mobility, where impoverished children, like me, have ended up wealthy professionals!

Neurosurgeon and Housing Secretary, Dr Ben Carson, is a perfect illustration of how diligent parenting, combined with Adventism, produced stellar results, despite inner city poverty and deprivation.

Will this trend prevail as the growth in USA Adventism is not among the educated but among the immigrant and minority populations??



Here’s your answer:

“Privilege” is a word that gets used with a lot of different meanings and, most unfortunately, in recent years has been used to divide people along racial lines. Thank you for reminding us that they greatest privilege we can exercise is to become children of God.


Thanks Bill,
The texts from scripture are not aimed at social status in society/rank but the fact that in Christ we are considered equal and as one, each as valuable as another to God.
It isn’t a socio-economic ranking because even in Christianity “equality doesn’t equal equal outcomes” as measured in the world’s hierarchy.
There are indeed “privileges” but while there may be many that seem/are accidental these are not all accidental. Examples being families staying together and nurturing their children to become productive members of society. While we would do well to recognize a person’s journey, the complexity of each individuals “privilege/or lack of it” is so multifaceted it can be mind-boggling.
Interestingly, Harvard is now being sued for discriminating against Asian’s that may excel in academics yet receive by Harvard’s estimation a low “personality” score. Thus a school outwardly promoting social equality themselves promote discrimination against some for the benefit of others in a school that supposedly values academics.
Complex problems but as stated in the eyes of God those in Christ are equally saved and valuable despite their social ranking in this world.
.“But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. 7 For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. 8 If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.” 1 Tim. 6:6-8 NASB

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Who could argue with the basic premise contained in this but it’s what we do with it that’s most important, whether it’s an important step toward equality of opportunity or divisive identity politics.

Nothing good comes from the weakness and moral dependency of ticking your intersectionality boxes and confirming why you can never get ahead as a gold medalist in the oppression Olympics.

The US has its own uniquely divisive response to privilege. Instead of enhancing unity by providing the same quality school education, basic healthcare and blind college access across the socio-economic divide, good schools depend upon your county, healthcare a high-paying job and college determined by artificial quota’s.

What could possibly go wrong when big brother decides that someone of Filipino heritage from a wealthy socially “privileged” family requires favoured college admission status while a Japanese-American from a poor background does not.

Entrenching a grievance culture with no end in sight to victim hood conflict isn’t likely to be productive vs acknowledging privilege but also constructing a more even playing field of opportunity for all and building resilience.

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